Your manager requested you to be the "buddy" for a new colleague who will join your team. Excited, you prepared a welcome pack and mentally planned for lunch. As you waited, a small-sized elderly lady in frumpy clothing approached the reception. She inquired about the location of your company. Impatiently, you replied, "Yes, what is your business here?" She mentioned your name and says it was her first day at work.
What were your first thoughts?
When meeting someone from a different culture, people tend to form generalisations. Generalisation is the act of taking all the existing data, identifying patterns and reconstructing the patterns. Its purpose is to describe and learn about the person or situation.
The generalisations of cultures are broad statements or characteristics of a cultural group. These broad statements are based on experiences, examples, or facts. These generalisations are used as a guide when interacting and engaging people from a different culture.
For example, the generalisation that Muslim women dress conservatively is valuable when visiting a Muslim country for the first time. Or the generalisation that India has an abundance of vegetarian food is a useful to help you adapt or plan your meals.
Similarly, stereotypes are also statements and interpretations about a group of people. According to Dovidio and colleagues1,
Stereotypes are associations and beliefs about the characteristics and attributes of a group and its members that shape how people think about and respond to the group.
Stereotypes can be both positive or negative and use labels to categorise people. For example, gay men are well-dressed, or women make bad leaders.
According to sociologist Joel Charon2, stereotypes consists of six main characteristics.
- Stereotype is about passing judgment.
- There is little or no room for exceptions.
- Stereotypes encourage the creation of categories and their characteristics. These categories overshadow and dominate other attributes of a person.
- Stereotypes rarely change, even when presented with opposing evidence.
- Anecdotes, not empirical evidence, are used to form stereotypes.
- Stereotypes do not help in understanding individuals or cultural differences.
What's the difference?
Once we understand the definition, the differences between the two become apparent.
- Generalisation is not for judgement. Stereotype judges.
- Generalisations can be changed when new evidence comes to light. Stereotype remains the same, even with new evidence.
- Generalisations are broad statements considering individual differences and contextual nuances. Stereotype does not allow for individual differences or considers context.
- Generalisations are a starting point to further understand cultural differences. A stereotype is the ending point, where there is nothing more to learn.
- Generalisations recognise the individual in a cultural group. Stereotype only recognises the group characteristics and ignores the individual.
Why do we generalise or stereotype?
According to Nobel-prize winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman,
The brain is "a machine for jumping to conclusions."
In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow3, Kahneman explains that our brains consist of two systems of thinking, simply named System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is fast in its brain processing. It is effortless, automatic and automatic. System 1's fundamental purpose is to assess and act. We use System 1 to take mental shortcuts as it helps to preserve our energy. For example, you order the same meal at your college cafeteria, or take the same route home from work.
While System 2 is slow in its process. Slow because it requires conscious effort, deliberations and rational thinking. System 2 involves awareness and control. We use System 2 to seek new information or to make decisions. For example, the task of choosing a new home requires considering many factors such as budget, location, home design, etc. Or the task of deciding which university to go to that is based on your grades, your interest, your parent's budget, etc.
Between the two systems, we rely on System 1 almost all of the time. This means we do not take the time to reflect, deliberate, investigate or seek new information to make well-informed decisions.
When it comes to generalisation and stereotypes, we almost always use System 1. Yet, the difference between the two is when we encounter new information. Do we switch to System 2 and consider what it means? Or do we hold firmly to System 1 and dismiss the new information?
Dangers of Stereotype
There are many downsides to one's self and to others when we rely too much on stereotypes. Some examples are biased decision making, covering and stereotype threat.
We make decisions all the time, day and night. Some decisions can have minimal consequences, such as eating the last apple in the fridge or letting your kids have them. Other decisions can change a person's life entire. For example, the decision to hire either someone from a different race and gender or someone of the same race and gender.
When we have stereotypes, our decisions become biased and may have lasting consequences for ourselves and for others. For example, researchers found that healthcare professionals tended to provide a lower quality of care when stereotypes are involved 4. When faced with racial minorities, stereotypes lead police to claim to see a weapon, where none were found5.
Kenji Yoshino is a gay Asian American and legal scholar who wrote the book, Covering6. Accordingly, covering is the act of downplaying aspects of one's identities to fit in and get ahead in one's career or life. These aspects can be race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability and many others.
Stereotype encourages people to cover. They fear exclusion, punishment when their stereotyped identities are revealed. In doing so, people cannot show their authentic selves.
People belonging to a cultural group carry the burden of its stereotypes. In an unsafe environment, people opt to cover the negative characteristics of a stereotype. This is to avoid attracting negative perceptions of themselves, even when the negative stereotype is untrue.
For example, avoiding discussions on homosexuality to gain the confidence of heterosexual colleagues. Or changing one's accent to be perceived as originating from a more privileged group. Or pretending to be younger in a workplace that looks down on older workers.
When there are identity characteristics cannot be hidden, people are at risk of Stereotype Threat. Most people acknowledge that a negative stereotype exists for their group. Then, Stereotype Threat is the risk of confirming negative stereotypes of one's social group.
People fear that the negative stereotype becoming true when engaged in work or academic activity. There is additional situational or evaluative pressure with negative stereotypes. Researchers have found that this pressure can disrupt our thinking and work performance7.
When elderly people were reminded of their negative stereotype of "poor memory", they performed worse in memorisation activities. Another group of older participants who were not given any "stereotyped" cues performed better in the same memorisation8.
Are you making generalisations? Or are you stereotyping?
One effective way to reduce stereotypes is to question your own assumptions and the assumptions of others. When you receive the new hire, the frumpy elderly lady, what were your impressions? Then, ask yourself.
What made you assume that?
Whether we impose stereotypes on others or are the recipient of stereotypes, it limits the capabilities of others and ourselves. Use generalisations for the ease of daily conversations. Together, we need to strive to reduce stereotypes.
- Dovidio, J. F., Hewstone, M., Glick, P., & Esses, V. (2010). Prejudice, Stereotype and Discrimination: Theoretical and Empirical Overview. In The Sage Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. Sage.
- Charon, J. M. (2013). Ten questions: A sociological perspective (8th ed). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
- Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin Books.
- FitzGerald, C., & Hurst, S. (2017). Implicit bias in healthcare professionals: A systematic review. BMC Medical Ethics, 18(1), 19.
- Payne, B. (2006). Weapon Bias: Split-Second Decisions and Unintended Stereotyping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(6), 287-291.
- Yoshino, K. (2011). Covering: The hidden assault on our civil rights. Random House.
- Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.
- Chasteen, A. L., Bhattacharyya, S., Horhota, M., Tam, R., & Hasher, L. (2005). How Feelings of Stereotype Threat Influence Older Adults’ Memory Performance. Experimental Aging Research, 31(3), 235–260.